When you have small children and two jobs, it’s quite difficult getting out to see first-run movies. Thankfully, I have a friend in the same phase of life and he and I have an understanding that we will find a way to see each new comic book movie together. We’ve been doing this for a few years now. So this holiday weekend we finally got out to see the new Avengers movie… at 9:40am on a Monday while our kids played together with our wives. Have I mentioned how amazing my wife is?
Anyway, going into this film I had tried my best to put an embargo on plot information and reviews about the film. One thing I did know, however, was that this film nearly broke the great Joss Whedon. Yes, following the completion of this movie, Joss tapped out of the next installment of the series and, it seems, will no longer direct any Marvel Cinematic Universe movies at all. Whedon’s perfectionism, by his own admission, is a blessing and a curse. He is decidedly his own worst critic, never quite satisfied with his work even if he has poured his heart and soul into it. So what was it about this film that pushed him to the edge?
A brief synopsis of the plot: The Avengers are avenging, but Tony Stark (Iron Man), being a very forward thinker, realizes that they need to work out a retirement plan before they actually need one. He’s secretly been working on something called “Ultron” that would be an artificial intelligence system to basically build a metaphorical shield around the planet. Stark is still shaken by what he saw at the end of the first Avengers film: a vast alien army ready to invade earth. Now, the gang busts a HYDRA base and ends up with some intel about an AI project HYDRA was working on. Stark and Bruce Banner take that tech and spin it into the Ultron project. They walk away as the program is running tests. It becomes operational and the villain Ultron is created. The rest of the movie is angst, fighting, and eventual victory… but at a cost.
The challenge with a team-up movie like this is to give each character a good arc, tell a good story, introduce new characters and set plotlines for the next few Marvel films too. That’s the challenge that Whedon took on and the one that ultimately burned him out. But, as I said before, Whedon is too hard on himself. This movie is actually very, very good at all those bullet points!
What sets Marvel Studios so far above the pack right now in comic book movies is their character stable. All of the featured heroes are extremely well cast, well drawn and well scripted. And this film actually does have something for every one of them to do. Stark is note perfect, as always. Captain America is true blue, but willing to be self-depreciating too. Thor could be a heavy and alien character, but he’s given levity and charm. Hulk is a joy to watch smashing things, but this film spends a lot of time plumbing the depths of his character and exploring the torturous truth about what he really is. Black Widow, the lone female Avenger to this point, is tough as nails, but confronts some dark truths about her past that impact her future as well.
And then there’s Hawkeye. Hawkeye was probably the most disposable character up to this point. He spent most of the last film under the spell of Loki and didn’t get much to do apart from that. Here, he may have the most perfect storyline of them all. His secret is that he has a farm, a wife and 2 kids with another on the way. And in a way, this reveal to the team is the galvanizing sequence that grounds them and enables them to press on. But it’s Hawkeye’s interactions with his family that, for me, were the most memorable scenes from the film. Hawkeye is … just a guy and he and his wife confront the insanity of the fact that he’s on the team with these superheroes, these “gods” and he’s actually indispensable to that team.
Okay, so the team is cool. Then there are the new characters. We get the introduction of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Their backstory is fine and their arcs are pretty good. There’s not too much else to say other than Scarlet Witch will have much more to do in future films. The Vision also appears here in a very cool way as it relates to Ultron’s story. And Paul Bettany is just a great actor and his limited screen time here is all perfect.
Ultron himself is a compelling villain, but definitely not a charismatic as Loki in the first film. Part of that is the fact that he’s a robot and can’t emote quite as well because of that fact. Still, his creation and motivation play on real-life fears about artificial intelligence, cyber security and preemptive strike war philosophy. Many of these are themes that have been well-explored in other sci-fi films, so maybe that’s why his plot doesn’t land quite as hard as Loki’s.
What I did love was a line for Captain America in the film as he talks to Tony Stark and says “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.” In fact, the central conflict of the film is actually more about Stark vs. Rogers. There are two scenes where Stark’s aspirations go against Cap’s better judgment (foreshadowing the next big film Civil War). Those scenes are very, very good as the leaders debate on how protection should be accomplished.
So in the end, this was a great movie. It didn’t quite reach the euphoric heights of the first Avengers, but that may be because the first on was such a novel concept at the time. This one aimed higher, but got better results by going deeper. As I said, the real gold in this franchise is the characters and we are left with much more love for them after this conflict. Many got hurt, many were broken, and the audience actually felt it. And that’s something that Whedon should be very proud of.
What’s next for Whedon? It sounds like he’ll get back to basics a bit and do something wholly original to satisfy the artist in him. I can’t wait.